AI: A Disruptive technology behind COVID-19 vaccine development

Disruptive technology

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 across the globe, pharmaceutical companies were able to develop safe and effective vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a record time of less than three months. Wondering how vaccines were developed so quickly against COVID-19? This was possible due to the use of a disruptive technology, artificial intelligence.

Scientists, clinicians, biomedical researchers, biotechnology companies, and government entities across the globe have leveraged disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, data science, and machine learning to fight against COVID-19

It usually takes several years and even decades to develop a vaccine. However, the breakthrough achieved in developing so many vaccines by using this disruptive technology within just a year of the pandemic is quite remarkable and startling too. Prior to this, the record for the development of the fastest vaccine was for mumps which took almost four years.


Applications of artificial intelligence in vaccine development

  • The Coronavirus has spikes on the surface using which it binds itself to the receptors present on human cells.
  • The RNA genome is injected into the cell and several copies of the RNA are produced.
  • The host (human cell) produces the structural proteins needed to assemble the new viral particles.
  • In this way, the Coronavirus replicates itself in the human body.
  • One crucial role of AI in vaccine development is to study the proteins found in the Coronavirus.
  • There are thousands of protein components that make up the Coronavirus. 
  • Using AI capabilities, it is possible for AI researchers to sort through all the different proteins and identify those that are most likely to trigger an immune response in humans.
  • Based on machine learning and using various analytics strategies, an AI system is capable of recognizing those protein components that won’t mutate even if the Coronavirus mutates.
  • The use of predictive analytics and machine learning which trains the AI system using various data sets of other viruses makes this happen.
  • Once the target of the virus is identified, AI researchers develop the vaccine.
  • This is how artificial intelligence helps in vaccine development.


Case studies about the use of AI capabilities to fight against COVID-19

Case study 1: Team IBM assisting in vaccine development

The IBM team is making use of a computational model of the S-protein (spike protein) of the SARS-Cov-2 to study its interaction with the human angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE2) receptor.

After having run simulations on thousands of molecules that could inactivate the virus, the IBM team has identified several small molecules that could bind to the spike protein of the Coronavirus and prevent it from binding to the human cells.


Case study 2: Research team at USC Viterbi School of Engineering have developed a method to counter mutations taking place in Coronavirus

The team of researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering has developed an ML model that can successfully accomplish vaccine design cycles in hardly a few seconds or minutes.

The AI researchers at this institute have created a method to speed up the analysis of vaccines and find out the best potential vaccine candidate for preventive care therapy.


How artificial intelligence can aid the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination?

According to Gartner, here are the four different ways in which AI, a disruptive technology, can help in the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts that are happening worldwide.

  • The use of existing AI models can help reduce uncertainty to quite an extent with respect to vaccine distribution and administering it to patients.
  • AI has the potential to perform repetitive tasks which otherwise would need human efforts. This means more automation and saves time too.
  • AI solutions can help in identifying the population which should receive the vaccine first and also determines how the vaccination should be carried out.
  • To carry out vaccination on a mass scale, the supply chain has a lot of challenges that need to be overcome. The use of AI in medicine helps to solve these challenges and maximize the speed of distribution of vaccines.


A Disruptive technology like AI is being used in different ways not just to fight against COVID-19 but also to stay one step ahead of the virus and prepare new vaccines prior to the development of mutant strains.